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Cool California Christmas : Currier & Ives Setting Showcased in the Land of Sun, Surf and Sand

December 12, 1987|MICHAEL WELZENBACH

Ah, Christmas: Distant sleigh bells jingling against a hushed backdrop of snow that glistens white on stately evergreens. It settles in great downy mantles upon rooftops, while chimneys issue ribbons of blue wood smoke. Indoors, crackling tongues of fire lick a fragrant yule log in the fireplace, and there's hot spiced cider to ward off the winter chill.

What, in Southern California, land of sun and surf?

The snow may be iffy this weekend, with fair weather forecast for the mountains, but with 13 days left before Christmas, a white Christmas may still be within two hours' drive from downtown Los Angeles. The "Back East" or "Up North" ambiance of Christmas doesn't have to be just a memory for Southlanders.

But snow or no snow, the gingerbread feeling of Christmas, the tall evergreens, the sleigh bells, carolers and colored lights are within easy reach. And all in the brisk mountain air that calls for warm coats, knit caps and mittens.

Seasonal Festivities

The mountain resort areas of Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear both celebrate Christmas with a host of seasonal festivities. And being at an altitude of about 6,000 feet (higher on the slopes), these two San Bernardino Mountain communities offer the kind of alpine weather conditions and atmosphere that make them seem a bit Christmasy year-round. And both locations have the added attraction of blue mountain lakes. Even at this time of the year, you can take a paddlewheeler ride on the Arrowhead Queen from the marina at Lake Arrowhead Village.

Ski enthusiasts have long known of the delights of the mountain resorts. But you don't have to be a skier to enjoy the atmosphere and small-town hospitality of these areas at Christmastime.

Southland residents who hail from up north, the Midwest or the East Coast, who miss the seasonal cold-weather feeling of the holidays, will find Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear particularly attractive. Up there, the leaves still drop with a blaze of autumnal glory, giving way to snow at the higher elevations.

So. When was the last time you saw Santa Claus riding through town in a horse-drawn carriage or sleigh, or heard carolers singing on street corners, or witnessed an alpine celebration of lights? This event (for centuries a tradition in various parts of Europe) has been adopted by both the Arrowhead community village of Blue Jay and by the little town of Crestline overlooking beautiful Lake Gregory, just 20 minutes up California 18 from the city of San Bernardino.

In both places, the crisp evening is illuminated by thousands of twinkling points of color from candles and Christmas lights festooning residences and businesses alike.

Less than 30 miles away from each other on California 18, you can, weather permitting, attend the Christmas festivities at Big Bear and Arrowhead in a day.

At this time of the year, of course, fog or snow can be a factor. However, just because Big Bear at its higher elevation may be snowbound, that does not necessarily mean that Arrowhead is--something local newscasts often fail to mention. A couple thousand feet in altitude makes all the difference.

If the mountains appear cloud-covered before you start the drive up, it's suggested that you check for snow and fog conditions before making the trip. For reports, call (714) 337-SNOW or 337-7669 for an up-to-date forecast. Another helpful number is (714) 338-3700.

Day trips to the mountain resorts are the most feasible during the holiday season. By early November, most of the lodgings at Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear are booked solid--which is not to say that cancellations and no-shows won't open up a few reservations.

But a lot can be seen and done in a day, and the festivities in both communities run this weekend and next. Both areas have carolers and Santa Claus and rides in the best Olde English and German traditions.

Though first settled by Mormons in the 1840s--loggers mostly, seeking to provide timber to the ballooning communities in the desert basin below--the mountains also attracted many German and Swiss immigrants who brought with them the alpine architecture of their homeland, partly because it was the most suitable for dealing with regularly heavy snowfall.

Thus the collections of villages comprising Arrowhead and Big Bear have an Old World flavor that is a distinct and welcome change from the sprawling hybrid metropolises of Los Angeles, San Diego and San Bernardino in the warm-weather basin below.

Big Bear, though smaller than the Lake Arrowhead area, has its own special charm and character--a real rural, small-town atmosphere persists, in spite of the growing number of tourists it attracts every year.

Already under way at Big Bear Village, continuing through Dec. 20, is an event organized jointly by the Big Bear Chamber of Commerce and the Big Bear Village Council. Santa will hear children's Christmas wishes at the corner of Big Bear Boulevard and Bartlett Road from 1 to 4 p.m. each Saturday and Sunday through Dec. 20.

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